Watched the documentary “Waiting for Superman,” about our nation’s education system. By highlighting and following students who sought to go to “excellent” schools, many of whom were not selected in the schools’ lottery (spoiler alert, sorry), the director/writer effectively showed that those who must attend “dropout factories” have a tough road ahead of them if they hope to succeed. Watching the selected families celebrate their “winning” the lottery is gut-wrenching. The system is broken, the director says, and there is little arguing with him watching this win-lose system at work.
However, a big culprit, according to the movie, is the teachers’ unions, because tenured teachers can’t be fired. In the schools I’ve worked at, there were only one or two “bad” teachers, and most of those just lacked classroom management skills and needed guidance from a mentor or administrator. Instead, they were maligned. Firing them would just mean they would be replaced with another first-year teacher, most of whom are stressed and ill-prepared for dealing with disruptive and verbally abusive students and parents. The movie didn’t talk about the fact that a high percentage of teachers burn out within five years. That is not the teacher union’s fault. It is the system.
My brother worked in an at-risk charter school, where the students often competed to be the rudest. “It’s a culture where you show respect for yourself by disrespecting others,” he says. The film didn’t address that element at all.
The film highlights some outstanding schools and implies that if all schools followed this model, the system could be fixed. Perhaps. But….the thrill of winning the school lottery reinforces these schools’ “specialness.” It becomes self-fulfilling prophecy that these children are going to a high-performing school, and that they were specially selected to attend. Therefore, there will most likely be high levels of support and high expectations and strong involvement from the parents and family. If every school were like that, the exclusivity would be lost, which I think is a part of these schools’ success.
Highlighting a few outstanding schools and saying every school should follow that model is like saying every business should follow Apple’s business model in order to succeed. Many businesses have indeed tried to follow proven models and still failed.
What would be more instructive, I think, is to look at other nations’ education systems and see how they make them work on a large scale. It is easy to have a few excellent schools…but how do some countries do it en masse?